The last time first-year LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele held the same position in college football, it was a tumultuous three-year period.
Sandwiched between two stints at Alabama, Steele led a Clemson defense that ranked 46th, 18th and 100th in total defense, respectively, from 2009-11.
The high point came in 2010 when his defense led the Atlantic Coast Conference in points allowed. But after accumulating 21 interceptions — tying the team for fifth in the nation in 2009 — Steele’s defenses never achieved more than 15 in his final two years. In that period, Clemson’s sack numbers decreased each year, and it never recovered more than nine fumbles in a season.
While those numbers might be alarming for fans in Baton Rouge, what Steele inherits this season is something he lacked at Clemson — an experienced defense, which finished atop its conference last season.
The Tigers have yet to play a meaningful snap, but the new coordinator can already see what separates this defense from others he’s led.
“This is a very fast group of guys,” Steele said at LSU Media Day. “They’re extremely competitive. You just got to open the door of the cage, and they’ll go hunt. You don’t have to get them riled up or tell them a story. All you have to do is snap it, and they’ll go play.”
Though LSU led the conference in total defense in 2014, Steele has placed an emphasis on creating turnovers, an area the Tigers struggled with the last two years under former defensive coordinator John Chavis. LSU notched just 20 turnovers last season, which was only one more than the amount in 2013 but 13 less takeaways than in 2012.
Creating turnovers is something Steele goes over every day with his defense, starting meetings with film of turnovers from the previous day of practice and then running drills designed to teach different ways to steal the ball. But the mindset is the key, Steele said.
“You increase turnovers by getting them and just being ball hawks,” Steele said. “It’s a mentality. We emphasize effort, tackling and turnovers. If you do those three things, you’re going to have a chance.”
Steele also is tasked with finding ways to create more sacks. LSU recorded just 19 sacks in 2014, which tied for 103rd in the nation and 13th in the Southeastern Conference.
With the increased use of up-tempo offenses, Steele acknowledged getting to the quarterback becomes more difficult when the ball is released quickly, and statistics can be misleading if pass rushers are creating havoc.
Forcing a tough throw, altering the quarterback’s vision and swatting the ball at the line of scrimmage are all aspects that are equally important in creating a pass rush, Steele said.
“If it’s catch, snap and throw, it’s hard to get a sack,” Steele said. “There’s a lot of that in this league now.
“... You got to be fair in judging [statistics]. We’ve evaluated more on drop-back pass ... and then the pressure on the passer in those situations.”